It is the best of times, it is the age of the iPad, and cloud computing. It’s the epoch of multi touch, of swipe and tap. According to Gartner, tablets sales this year will reach more than 50 million units, and more than 100 by 2012. When compared to the 19.7 million sold in 2010 (also according to Gartner) the figures speak for themselves.
Of course if you use SharePoint 2010, you might not be as excited. Here's a look at your options for using SharePoint on the iPad.
It’s the season of productivity hope, as company execs start to embrace the new device, especially the non tech savvy ones (aka senior management), who see in the ease of use and intuitiveness of tablets a first class access to the information highway, and a chance to get into the digital conversation without intermediaries. Enterprises have everything before them, a new family of devices to empower their workforce, allowing them to get things done everywhere, and take the company’s knowledge anywhere with them, right?
Well, it´s also the worst of times, SharePoint´s out of the box support for mobile access leaves much to be desired, plus the support for enterprise ready features in tablets it’s still in its infancy. In practice, users have nothing before them but a crippled experience, and can get easily frustrated when trying to get things done on SharePoint using an iPad. Among the major drawbacks of using SharePoint 2010 from iPad´s Safari are:
- No file upload support. Limiting the document management experience to a read only one.
- No support to edit documents in MS Office. This SharePoint feature relies on ActiveX, which is not supported in non IE browsers, let alone mobile ones.
- No datasheet view
- No Silverlight
- No Explorer view, again an ActiveX based feature.
- No InfoPath support.
- No Rich Text Editor
The story if you are still using SharePoint 2007 is even worse, and won´t be covered in here.
What are the Options?
Fortunately there are several options available out there that address some of the issues introduced previously, and they all should be studied in the context of a broader mobile strategy, but basically they can be divided in two basic approaches: Server side web based add-ons, or native applications. Both have their strengths, which we’ll overview in the following section.
Server side, Web Based Approaches
We call server side web based solutions to those involving modifications to the SharePoint server, or the installation of additional features, that enable the server to detect when a request comes from a mobile browser, and as response a tailored html is returned to the device optimized for the mobile screen settings. Main strengths of this approach are:
Cross Platform Support
The fact that server based solutions are not mobile platform dependent is the strongest point of this approach. This family of solutions relies on standards such as HTML+CSS, the contents are displayed by browsers, which are commonplace in smart devices. This represents a valid way of supporting several devices, in some cases at the cost of aiming at the lowest common denominator set of features, sure to be supported in most platforms. Cross platform support takes relevance if you’ve answered no to the first two questions, if you don’t know your audience, or can’t anticipate, or control which devices they will be using.
Another advantage of this approach is the need to modify in just one place, the server, for the new mobile views to be working. Depending on the complexity of the SharePoint farm this may be easier or not to do, but once it’s rolling, it should scale well as new devices are incorporated to the company.
Developers with HTML+CSS skills are easier to find, than say, Objective-C, or experienced in Android development, at least for the time being. The same team, or provider that may have customized the SharePoint installation to fit the company’s aesthetics, structure and processes, will probably be able to apply the modifications suggested by Microsoft to customize the mobile views.
By native apps we refer to apps developed for a specific platform, such as iOS, Android or RIM’s BlackBerry. The downside of this approach is that these apps are platform dependent, but this comes with some benefits, such as:
Enhanced User Experience
At the moment, and for some time to come native apps have the upper hand when it comes to providing a better user experience. User interfaces have better performance, particularly in iPad’s Safari, and include support for new gestures, one, two, three fingers swipes which may trigger different actions. They are also less dependent on network connection quality. This is important for some scenarios where users such as salesmen just can´t wait for a page, or an image to load, when they want to show a list of products to a potential client, they need the app to be snappy. So if you know your audience, and have control over the device that will be used, why not provide them with better experience.
Access to Hardware Peripherals
Client side solutions can access hardware features through API not available to web based solutions, such as photo & video cameras, etc. This enables richer data entry scenarios, where media content can be uploaded directly intro SharePoint lists. Especially valuable for example in the education sector, where videos and audio recordings of classes are captured and shared.
The ability to carry on working no matter what the network connectivity is like is definitely one of the stronger points of native apps. This plus the support to add changes while offline represents a major asset for workforces with strong mobility requirements.
Apps Interoperability & Document Editing
Native apps provide ways to inter-operate between apps, to enable scenarios such as, download document, open in document editing app, modify document, send back modified version, and finally upload to SharePoint, in a similar way as it takes place in the desktop. Web based solutions lack the ability to upload documents in the iPad’s Safari browser, and thus remain mostly a read only asset.
Conclusion and Closing Thoughts
As the iPad, and smart devices in general, continue to make inroads in corporate environments, the relevance of having a mobile strategy that leverages all the existing SharePoint investment in content and knowledge management only grows higher.
In this article we’ve tried to layout the major options and decision alternatives that must be taken into account when defining the strategy to adopt mobile technologies company wide. There are two main approaches: server based solutions and native app based solutions. These are not necessarily exclusive approaches -- a mix of both might make sense to capitalize on the strengths of each, and they must be studied in the context of target usage scenarios and a broader mobile strategy.
Editor's Note: You might also be interested in SharePoint 2010: A View From Apple and Other Mobile Devices